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How Learning Will Work in the Near Future: 12 Features of Next-Gen Platforms

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It's still harder than it should be to create an effective sequence of learning experiences in K-12, postsecondary education, or organizational training. Owing to underinvestment and weak demand articulation, learning platforms are still five years behind the growing demand for engaging, learner-centered, competency-based experiences that result in employability (and other favorable outcomes).

The good news is that progress is being made on a dozen fronts. Next generation learning grant programs like NGLC and Race to the Top are creating focus and awareness. Collaborations like Digital Promise's League of Innovative Schools is aggregating demand.

Following are 12 components of next-gen learning and 12 development vectors, groups of organizations on a similar path to next-gen learning, and 12 suggestions for philanthropies that want to accelerate progress.

Next-Gen Components. Next-gen learning platforms will include a dozen core elements:

  1. Learning tools: social, collaborative, productivity, and presentation tools;

  2. Relationship tools: progress monitoring, academic advisory, scheduling, career/college guidance, links to health, youth, and family services;

  3. Content: easy content development and management tools, tagged libraries of open and proprietary content, and intuitive search;

  4. Assessment tools: test and quiz builder (e.g. MasteryConnect), database of performance tasks and rubrics (e.g. Literacy Design Collaborative), peer review tools (e.g., Peerceptiv) and tools that calibrate assessment of performance tasks (see market research);

  5. Super gradebook: combines multiple sources of formative assessment, and achievement analytics featuring data visualization (e.g., BrightBytes);

  6. Profile & portfolio: comprehensive learner profiles (see Data Backpacks for full description) and digital portfolios where learners capture artifacts that represent personal bests;

  7. Personalization: adaptive learning should be easily incorporated and/or learner profiles should drive digital playlists of recommended learning experiences; and

  8. Learning management tools: assignment management and dynamic grouping (e.g., Edmodo), achievement recognition and progress management systems (badges or other micro credentialing strategies).

Successful platforms will become ecosystems with a constellation of four aligned services:

  1. Student services: academic support, tutoring, work-based learning, financial aid;

  2. Teacher services: professional development (e.g., LearnZillion, Bloomboard), lesson and tool sharing (e.g., BetterLesson); behavior management (e.g., ClassDojo);

  3. School services: student information, implementation support, new school development, and school improvement services; and

  4. Back-office service: enrollment, finance, and personnel.

The whole ecosystem should be mobile-friendly because it will often be accessed via smartphone.

Development Vectors. There are also a dozen change forces generally coalescing around these next-gen components (we discussed 10 forces 14 months ago). They include:

1. Updated LMS. Some LMS providers have added personalized learning and MOOC-like features as well as open content: Agilix launched Buzz, Instructure launched Canvas.net, Desire2Learn launched Open Courses. Free learning platforms include Pearson OpenClass and Google Classroom. Given Amazon's acquisition of TenMarks and their aggressive marketing of web services we'll probably see more of them in the learning space.

2. Social learning. Free social learning platform Edmodo serves 46 million users. LMS platforms are adding social and collaborative features that improve the ability for instructors to utilize dynamic grouping and improve communication.

3. MOOCs. With 118 institutional partners, Coursera offers 900 courses to 11 million learners. It has primarily expanded postbaccalaureate learning but some community colleges are wrapping MOOCs in student services, and emerging low cost ecosystems likely to produce improved completion rates.

4. Anywhere anytime learning. A variety of job training sites starting with Lynda to Udemy support individual learners and corporate clients. General Assembly created a premium experience with talented instructors and a community of entrepreneurial learners.

5. Engagement. Most learning institutions want to better engage students to boost persistence and performance. Summit Public Schools is building an open platform that combines skill building playlists and standards-based projects; so is Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. School networks are collaborating to improve the ability to assess engaging projects.

In HigherEd, Fidelis is supporting learning relationships and Echo360 is promoting active learning.

6. Competency. Where it's possible to backmap from job requirements, professional training will increasingly become competency-based, and that's likely to include educator preparation.

In addition to a leading online program, Southern New Hampshire University developed College for America, an innovative competency-based degree program aimed at low wage workers and Motivis, a learning platform to support similar initiatives.

7. Data & assessment. The shift to digital launched an explosion of keystroke data, but today's platforms are ill equipped to capture and synthesize information from multiple sources. Tablet bundles and online learning providers may be among the early leaders using data to improve learning and measuring learner dispositions including collaboration and mindset. Clarity from BrightBytes is a widely used research-based decision support platform. Secondary and postsecondary schools are encouraging students to build portfolios using apps like EduClipper, Pathbrite and Google Drive.

8. Adaptive learning. Elementary adaptive learning products including i-Ready and Dreambox are gaining widespread elementary adoption. ALEKS and Knewton are gaining secondary and postsecondary adoption. Current adaptive products live in a "walled garden" of proprietary content but as learner profiles improve, predictive algorithms will be applied across larger content libraries.

9. App ecosystems. A few platforms are attempting to harness the mobile app explosion. Edmodo has hundreds of apps. Fingerprint started by helping parents tame the preschool app market is now helping schools build app networks. Google Apps for Education has enough functionality to be considered an app ecosystem.

10. Ecosystems. The explosion of mobile apps suggests that it may not be a unitary platform that anchors learning ecosystems. It may be an app store and set of interoperability standards that promote a plug and play learning world.

11. Dashboards. First there were data dashboards like Aspire's SchoolZilla and EL Haynes' SchoolForce. Then came Summit's Personal Learning Plan, a personalized learning interface that sits on top of the learning platform. FuelEd's Peak is a new example of an object repository that sits on top of a legacy LMS and facilitates a modular personalized approach.

12. Personal growth. Watch the interest-based personal growth space for developments in modular mobile learning, quantified self, peer and social supports, game-based strategies, and learner analytics.

Smart planning and purchasing by districts and networks is the fuel behind many of these change vectors. By aggregating demand and improving market signaling, networks can accelerate platform improvements to better serve learners.

Advice. Learning platforms will be foundational to the development and adoption of next gen learning. Most K-12 and HigherEd institutions of learning will belong to networks that share learning experience (LX) features, support services and a platform ecosystem. These networks and ecosystems require large scale investment so it's important to use the right form of capital for the right job. A recent impact investing paper summarized pros and cons:

  • Public: best at providing coverage and promoting equity; poor at flexibility and responsiveness.

  • Private, non-profit: best at taking a long view and serving vulnerable populations, poor at promoting efficiency and scale.

  • Private, for-profit: best at efficiency and scale; unlikely to target unprofitable segments.

As evidenced by the NYC iZone over the last decade, important innovations can occur when public leaders aggregate demand, when foundations promote equity, and when private enterprise creates and scales innovations.

Philanthropists contemplating strategies to accelerate development and adoption of platform ecosystems can consider four investment mechanisms:

  • R&D: attacking basic problems and exploring new learning opportunities (high risk, high potential return, low certainty);

  • Push: iterating and scaling what appears to be working (low risk, moderate return, high certainty);

  • Pull: used in inefficient markets, pull mechanisms including aggregating demand, inducement prizes, and eliminating regulatory barriers (moderate risk, potential for high return, low certainty) (see Using Prize & Pull Mechanisms to Boost Learning); and

  • Advocate: encourage public investment and adoption.

Following are a dozen examples of investment initiatives in each of these categories.


1. Lay the groundwork for super gradebooks by supporting standards and strategies that would make it easy to combine formative assessment data from multiple sources.

2. Support research resulting in comparable growth measures so that progress made in different learning environments can be easily be compared.

3. Support network and/or platform related research into developmental areas such as motivational profiles, recommendation engines, and dynamic scheduling.

4. Support capabilities demonstrations like predictive analytics and automated scoring (e.g., Automated Student Assessment Prize).

Push mechanisms:

5. Support groups of new/transformed schools using a common platform (eg. New Tech Network, Summit Public Schools) and commitment to simultaneously iterate the learning environment and platform. Support a competency-based college developing a new platform (e.g., College for America and Motivis).

Pull mechanisms:

6. Support regional programs (e.g. NGLC) which are advancing a common vision of next gen secondary and postsecondary learning.

7. Support a group of districts adopting a common platform and blended learning strategies.

8. Support the New England Secondary School Consortium's regional work to promote common principles for competency-based learning and their effort to build a HigherEd network willing to accept a proficiency-based diploma.

9. Sponsor a platform demonstration competition (e.g., XPRIZE).

Direct investment:

10. Using grants, program related investments (PRI), or mission related investments (MRI), foundations can back promising platforms (e.g., Girard's support for Activate Instruction).


11. Support a blog series, papers, and conferences advancing a vision of next gen learning (e.g., Educause).

12. Construct a jointly funded project with a state to support low cost platform adoption (e.g., Canvas adoption by Utah universities).

Informed and aggregated purchasers are the most important market drivers. Continued venture investment in promising companies, occasionally aided by some of these philanthropic strategies, will support continued platform progress.

For more, see:

Next Generation Learning Challenges, Literacy Design Collaborative, DreamBox Learning, Curriculum Associates, Agilix, Canvas - Instructure, Pearson, & Fuel Education are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

MasteryConnect, BrightBytes, Edmodo, LearnZillion, Bloomboard, Better Lesson, ClassDojo, Udemy, & General Assembly are Learn Capital portfolio companies where Tom Vander Ark is a partner.

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